The story “Anna Karenina” is one of the greatest works in Western literature. Vladimir Nabokov described him as “the greatest creator of nineteenth-century literature.” It is always on the top of the list of favorite books of famous authors. Bob Blaisdell, a professor of English at the City College of New York, loved it so much that he read the book about 20 times, and then learned Russian so he could when reading in the original language.
Meanwhile, Blaisdell, who reviews books for the Monitor, has written a fascinating and insightful book about Leo Tolstoy’s struggle to finish his masterpiece. “The Making of Anna Karenina: Tolstoy and the Birth of Literature’s Most Enigmatic Heroine” is filled with telling facts and details about Tolstoy’s life that form the direction of the book.
Tolstoy originally began “Anna Karenina” as a novella that he intended to knock off quickly. He finished a draft in a few weeks, but things were delayed because Tolstoy was a master procrastinator. Blaisdell estimates that in 30 of the 53 months he worked on the book, Tolstoy did not touch the script.
Part of this lack of success can be attributed to a difficult family life at times – three of his children died while he was working on the book. His professional life was devoted to reforming Russian education. And he devoted himself to his hobbies – horses, traveling, and hunting.
Tolstoy disliked the project. At various points, he wrote that the book “sickened me,” was “absolutely disgusting,” “absolutely disgusting and vile,” and “absurd, not so bitter.” At one point he announced in a letter, “[I] I have stopped publishing my book and want to quit, I really like it.
Thanks for the letter, Tolstoy continued. In part, it is the result of an inner fire that can fuel the intelligence to achieve amazing things. The roles played by his wife Sophia and his friend Nikolai Strakhov. Sophia – who gives birth to 13 children, takes care of their education, and takes care of the house during the day – endures letter after letter at night. “She was almost always at work, there, the loving, patient midwife to the art.”
Strakhov was a critic and for many years Tolstoy’s closest friend and most knowledgeable reader. Tolstoy often sought reassurance from Strakhov that he was on the right path and always received it. In fact, Strakhov wrote to Tolstoy, “You and your stories – for a long time the best parts of my life.”
Tolstoy’s opinion of Anna changed during his writing and this made the author feel guilty again. At first, he sees her as a cheating woman who ran off with another man and doesn’t deserve love or pity for her fate. But over time, he became a complete person all around. Indeed, she emerges from the book’s pages as a beautiful, graceful, sweet, and intelligent woman who “struck us … like a goddess.” Yes, he was wrong. But the more he writes, the more human he becomes and he begins, according to Blaisdell, to “love” him.
Perhaps the most important reason for the long-term pregnancy was that Tolstoy began to struggle with the feelings and emotions that would lead him, later in life, to abandon his wealth and become a the Christian pacifist and anarchist. He would document and explain this mid-life crisis a few years later in “My Confession” (published in 1882). But while writing the novel, Tolstoy found himself torn between joy and happiness and moments of deep sadness and grief and he felt that kill himself. Blaisdell concludes that by writing in detail about Anna’s descent into madness and murder, Tolstoy may have survived his own grief.
“Creating Anna Karenina” is the product of a lifetime of study. It features extensive research and study and is written by an experienced narrator. The good news is that it’s not just an academic treatise that appeals to casual readers. Of course, Blaisdell’s easygoing and understated humor adds to the pleasure of reading.
This book cannot be read by those who have not read “Anna Karenina.” But for those who have, Blaisdell offers interesting insights and new perspectives that will lead anyone, including this author, to re-read Tolstoy’s masterpiece with renewed appreciation.